Max wags his tail as he walks from wheelchair to wheelchair, taking in all the petting and dog treats he can. The 9-year-old chow mix is in his element, walking off the leash at the Brookdale Mansfield senior community.
“He loves all of us. You can pet him and scratch him and give him a cookie,” said Doris Eanes after petting Max.
Max has been giving unconditional love and attention to senior residents at Brookdale since 2012. This month, the dog and his owner Steve Burn celebrated their 365th official visit to Brookdale. That doesn’t count all the special events like Christmas and Halloween parties where Max wears a Santa Claus outfit or other costume.
The senior community on Country Club Drive is where Max’s therapy career started, but it’s spread far beyond that to Methodist Mansfield Medical Center, Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, various schools and a special needs camp. He also brings comfort to people after disasters, including the fertilizer plant explosion in West on April 17, 2013, and the tornadoes that hit Dallas, Collin and Ellis counties the day after Christmas in 2015.
In total, Max and Burn have logged 1,400 visits to various places with 2,200 hours of volunteer time to comfort thousands of people.
“Anywhere he goes, whether it’s a hospital, in the elementary schools or what have you, his job as a therapy dog is — we call it sharing joy and smiles,” Burn said. “He’s literally a comfort dog.”
At Brookdale, Max, who was rescued out of a shelter, spends most of his visit in the community room where people come for their weekly dog interaction. His tail never stops wagging as more residents stop by.
Max does some tricks, too. He’ll eat a treat out of Burn’s mouth, give handshakes and high-fives and "speak" on command. Burn can even leave a treat on Max’s paw and signal when he can eat it.
While Burn said most people see him as “just Max’s owner,” the residents are grateful that he volunteers his time to share his dog with them.
“He’s a very humble man. He never brags about himself,” said Noemi Gonzales. “The dog has helped me a lot.”
Longtime Mansfield resident Clara Looper has always been an animal lover. “There’s a touch that a human just doesn’t give you,” she said.
Tina Willie, resident program coordinator at Brookdale, said the Monday morning visits have been a highlight for the residents since she started working there four years ago.
“He kind of fills the void,” Willie said. “It brings a smile to their faces. They really enjoy when he comes. They are really heartbroken when they can’t see him.”
After about an hour, Max and Burn make a lap around the building to visit residents in their rooms. If someone has the door open, the pair stop in to say hi. Max gets noticeably worried if he passes too many closed doors. When the community loses a resident, Burn likes to know ahead of time.
“He can identify everybody here,” Burn said. “He knows if they are missing.”
Max’s celebrity status keeps him busy four days a week visiting stressed out travelers at D/FW Airport, patients at Methodist Mansfield or students at the University of Texas at Arlington during finals week.
Because Burn visits Brookdale as an independent contractor, he’s able to walk Max off leash. But the majority of his visits are done through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, which requires Max to wear a vest, be on leash and have liability insurance.
Burn first suggested the idea of having therapy dogs at D/FW Airport in June 2016. The airport launched the DFW K9 Crew program with Max and 12 other human and dog pairs the following October. The dogs walk around wearing vests that say “Pet me” and are issued their own trading cards.
The program has grown to include 37 teams and could grow to 60 by the end of the year, said Cynthia Vega, senior manager of corporate affairs for D/FW Airport.
The sight of friendly dogs walking around the airport terminals has been a welcome surprise for travelers, said Ricky Griffin, customer experience coordinator for the airport. “Travelers of every age enjoy interacting with the dogs and their handlers in terminals,” Griffin said. “Not only do the dogs bring comfort to passengers waiting for flights, but also their handlers are trained to provide an exceptional customer experience by providing directions and answering general questions about airport amenities and services.”
Max and Burn make regular visits to Methodist Mansfield to visit patients in their rooms. The duo have also attended the hospital's annual Run with Heart and NICU celebration.
“Max and Steve Burn are very popular at the hospital and are frequently requested by patients and staff,” hospital President John Phillips said. “Max is also used to promote health and wellness in our weekly Twitter posts. A friendly pet visit has both positive physical and mental benefits. The pet therapy teams help lower blood pressure and anxiety and bring smiles and joy to patients, physicians and staff.”
Max used to volunteer six days a week but they’ve slowed down a bit. “I think that’s being a responsible owner for him,” Burn said. “He’s healthy as a horse right now. Long may that continue.”
Max still gets to be a dog when he’s not on duty, barking at people who walk by his home or chasing squirrels and coyotes. One time, Max ran too hard after a coyote and tore his ACL in his right back knee. The veterinarian said he’d never seen this much damage to a dog’s leg and recommended amputation.
Burn was determined not to do that, opting instead for a total knee replacement. The surgery was successful but required more than four months of rehabilitation exercises. That meant no therapy visits. When Burn sent out an email announcing that Max would be out of commission for a few months, his inbox was soon flooded with replies expressing concern. Burn jokes that he was hospitalized once but didn’t get nearly the outpouring of support Max got.
Burn grew up in Northern England but spent three decades living in Toronto before moving to Mansfield when he got married in 2009. He doesn’t volunteer for acclaim or notoriety, but rather “the satisfaction of helping people and making people smile and laugh and reminisce about their dogs."
“It’s a crazy world these days," he said. "I was brought up to help others. When I’m in that situation, somebody’s doing something similar to what I’m doing now.”
While Max does take the occasional hard-earned break, his enthusiasm for cheering up everyone he comes in contact remains unconditional. “When he is ready to retire, he’ll make his last visit here,” Burn said. “Hopefully that’s still a couple years off.”